Disclaimer: I work in Google's Policy Team, developing multistakeholder cooperations for internet governance & policy themes, hence I want to point out that all the opinions and ruminations on this blog are mine, not Google's.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Reflections On "Fear of Knowledge" by Boghossian

Boghossian has surely written a well informed and thoroughly argued book entitled "Fear of Knowledge". And I have to admit in most cases he was able to make me doubt what I would call my “common sense” approach to knowledge . What Prof. Boghossian proclaims in very elaborate terms is that there is a historic evolution and that there exists a factual world outside of our cognition , and I won’t argue that it doesn’t seem to me like that.

However I found several sections where I think he is a bit out of balance, but I will focus on two fundamental problems with his well crafted rationalization. He himself states one contradiction on page 78, where he writes: “We ourselves seem to acknowledge that WE CANNOT HOPE TO DEMONSTRATE THE CORRECTNESS OF AN EPISTEMIC SYSTEM BY USING THAT VERY SYSTEM”. (emphasis added)

A) He is dealing with facts/truth/knowledge on a meta-level, because he already uses the we clause, hence indicating that his demonstration makes only sense when communicated with others

B) He is right – how can you possibly claim you are right based on your own observation.

I think that my relativism has is based on reason. It allows me to engage in constructive – as in productive/diplomatic/sythesis-seeking communication .

Hence a relativist position allows to accept the fact that you might be wrong (and as a package/worldview) allow to disregard aspects of believe e.g. religious, that you don’t share without disrespecting other positions – one theme at a time.

I’d describe my Weltanschauung in this case as pragmatic relativistic (rather than radical relativism).

At one point Boghossian uses the example of the perception that the world is flat, while in reality it is a sphere. Isn’t that a wonderful example of the usefulness of pragmatic relativist thinking: in everyday life the world is flat, for aeronautical engineers the earth is a sphere, but to a theoretical physisist the earth is a space with tons of molecules in a quantum state. It makes sense to accept ‘facts’ relative to what you want to do.

Especially in the case of scientific knowledge I am with Habermas’ existence–reality split. In this view existence describes the world of objective factual truth (as in the objects that you see in front of you) and existence is gradually (say hyperbolically) verified with the amount of observations that coincide. However just because you and nobody else has ever seen a pink elephant doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist – as discussed at length by philosophers of science under the theme of induction. It results that once again my pragmatism solves the problem – as long as the existing insight provides correct explanations to the phenomena I will use it as reference.
Or in other words so is my reality. Because reality is in Habermasian terms nothing but what one individually believes to be true. Hence each individual lives or constructs his/her own reality.

Which brings us to the second component, constructivism. It is relevant only for the description of the human construction of knowledge in the brain, rather than the collective construction and codification of scientific insights in the noosphere. Both are constructed, but on very different scales/dimensions.

I believe in radical constructivism (ala Watzlawick). The brain constructs reality out of the experience it is exposed to.

I have to end here (I just cant find more time right now), but if you want to engage in a discussion, feel free to comment – and I will follow up.

Also please check out the cyberphilosophy collaboratory some friends and myself just started.

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